Roswell’s” Max and Liz are my favorite TV couple of the “meant to be together” type. There’s admittedly something fantastical, idealistic and possibly even unhealthy about fixating on this type of love. But it’s so beautifully portrayed thanks to the chemistry between shy starman Max (Jason Behr) and journal-writing girl-next-door Liz (Shiri Appleby) that I allow myself this one diversion into the idea of soulmates.
Season 1 (1999-2000, WB) isn’t all about reveling in the cuteness and purity of Max and Liz, though. Starting with the road-trip classic “285 South” (episode 6), the chemistry between Michael (Brendan Fehr) and Maria (Majandra Delfino) explodes onto the screen, and this is a decidedly different TV couple type: those who bicker but actually like each other. And there’s a third pairing: I had recalled Alex (Colin Hanks) following Isabel (Katherine Heigl) around like a puppy, but Isabel actually does like him – it’s just that she holds onto to the “no human attachments” theory more fiercely than fellow aliens Max and Michael.
While I often lumped “Roswell” in with “The X-Files” back in the day as TV’s popular alien shows, you can’t get much different than the colorful palette and teenage themes compared to dark tones and dense conspiracy. On this viewing, though — in addition to noting that “X-Files” veteran John Bartley is also a cinematographer for “Roswell” (and both shows look great under his lens) — I got to thinking about this angle: “Roswell” simply flips the point of view from “The X-Files.”
Both shows use the 1947 Roswell crash as a springboard, and both feature cover-ups and secret agencies within the FBI. In “The X-Files,” the FBI agents are the heroes and aliens are mysterious unknowns. In “Roswell,” the aliens are the heroes and government agents are mysterious unknowns. The question of whether the teens can trust Sheriff Valenti (William Sadler) looms over the season, and once it’s clear he can be trusted, federal agents come into play, from Miss Topolsky (“Buffy’s” Julie Benz) to Agent Pierce (“Relativity’s” David Conrad). Before Pierce, who is introduced late in the season, “Roswell” has another similarity with “The X-Files”: It’s not about a singular Big Bad so much as it’s about a world that feels increasingly strange, scary and unsafe.
Although Season 1 – developed by Jason Katims, whose “My So-Called Life” background is definitely felt — is often labeled “slow” by younger viewers who watch it for the first time after falling in love with The CW’s “Roswell, New Mexico,” I find the slow-burn pacing to be just right. The tension ratchets up in the final six episodes, a.k.a. the Tess arc. Tess (Emilie de Ravin, later of “Lost”) is a controversial figure among fans, but I suspect that has more to do with later seasons. Although she definitely rocks “Roswell’s” foundation as a fourth alien, the season’s closing arc is about how her presence (and other information about the aliens’ origin) challenges the core group of six friends; it’s not about breaking them up and redefining the series.
The writers’ challenges of drawing that ephemeral sci-fi audience, as per network mandate, would come later. “Roswell” Season 1 is a tight story that mostly sticks to its initial instincts, aside from Liz’s voiceover narration going away at midseason. After that, it’s an undeniable ensemble piece that pits destiny against love (appropriately, though, this theme mostly comes via Max and Liz). This timeless concept is not only being revisited with “Roswell, New Mexico,” but it still has fans talking about the original series 20 years later.
Here are my rankings of the 22 episodes of “Roswell” Season 1. Even as you go further down the list, there aren’t any outright bad episodes — the season is consistently engrossing and enjoyable — but some have to rank higher than others:
1. “Pilot” (episode 1, written by Jason Katims) – I mean no disrespect to the rest of the season by putting this at No. 1, but I have to acknowledge that this is a near-perfect pilot that sets up everything “Roswell” is about. Particularly great is the scene where Max tells Liz he’s “not of this Earth” in an empty classroom, and light comes down from above. W.G. Snuffy Walden (“My So-Called Life”) and Joseph Williams give us the Max-Liz theme, and the final scene actually makes the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” seem like a good song.
2. “285 South” (6, William Sind and Thania St. John) – The first great episode since the pilot sends Fehr and Delfino’s chemistry into high gear on an impromptu road trip. I laughed out loud when Maria asks “What other human urges do you feel?” When Max reaches over Liz to repair a hole in the Jeep to keep her warm, it’s a good example of the sweetness of his love for her, and how it’s different from Michael and Maria’s lust-driven behavior.
3. “Tess, Lies and Videotape” (18, Toni Graphia and Richard Whitley) – This is the masterpiece of the concluding six-episode arc. The one thing that could come between Max and Liz is someone from Max’s home planet, and Tess fits the bill. She has usurped Alex (for Isabel’s attentions) and Liz (for Max’s attentions), and that’s a negative for how we feel about Tess but a positive for the story’s tension and momentum. While Behr and the writers illustrate that Max is drawn to Tess by an extrasensory compulsion, the episode also works as a metaphor for a guy who is distracted from his perfect brunette girlfriend when a cute blonde enters the picture.
4. “Independence Day” (15, Graphia) – The “very special episode” flavor can be a bug or a feature depending on your taste, but there’s no denying a central flaw: Michael should obviously be able to fight off his abusive foster father, Hank. (It’s no surprise that the beatings aren’t shown; we wouldn’t believe them.) But this episode is otherwise great, as the ongoing Nasedo mystery pairs well with Michael’s vulnerability and Amy DeLuca’s fear that Maria could get pregnant. Speaking of which, Diane Farr and Delfino have by far the best parent-child interplay on “Roswell”; a highlight here is when Maria realizes her mom is making out with the sheriff in the other room and announces in a strained voice, “Mom, I’m home.”
5. “The Toy House” (11, Jon Harman Feldman and Katims) – This episode nicely crystalizes the aliens’ respective positions on whether to share their secret with their parents, with Michael opposed, Isabel in favor, and Max in the middle. Max’s conversation with his mom (Mary Ellen Trainor) on the park bench is lump-in-your-throat-worthy, and probably especially powerful for adopted kids. Max healing the bird in the Evans’ home video is a prime example of the importance of nailing the casting of Young Max. Thank god Isabel mentions Counting Crows in the dialog, because it forces them to keep the original song on the DVD.
6. “Into the Woods” (12, St. John) – I’m a sucker for a woods-based story, whether it’s “The X-Files” or a horror movie. This is also a decent father-child episode, as we get to know the various dads. The recasting of the Evans dad is jarring (Garrett M. Brown replaces Michael O’Neill), but it’s important to establish him for the future. The stuff between Liz and her dad (John Doe) is the best, building from a playful but illustrative moment where she wears a fake nose ring, scaring the crap out of him.
7. “Destiny” (22, Katims and St. John) – The season finale builds off what has come before, but it’s also pretty strong in its own right, and it makes us excited for Season 2 with the introduction of a rival alien race on Earth. The highlight is the ending, when the aliens hear from Max and Isabel’s biological mom (in human form so as not to confuse them) in a “Superman”-style recording, and Liz walks off to Dido’s “Here With Me,” feeling like Max’s epic destiny overwhelms their love. Max’s healing of Kyle (Nick Wechsler) is a nice parallel to the pilot where he heals Liz, and it cements Sheriff Valenti’s allegiance. There are some clunkier elements: Michael’s fear that he’s a killer (in contrast to Max as a healer) is blunt, and Max repeating lines back to Pierce from “The White Room” is quite on-the-nose. And if the parents’ reaction to their teens’ long absences isn’t addressed at the start of Season 2, it will be an oversight.
8. “Leaving Normal” (4, Katims) – Liz’s grandma (Carroll Baker) pops in for one episode to tragically die after a stroke. While this plot can be found on many TV series, I nonetheless have a soft spot for this one because it’s a beautiful way to bring Max and Liz together when he uses his powers to let her say goodbye to her grandma.
9. “Four-Square” (19, St. John) – After seeing Tess use her powers at the end of episode 18, the group operates on the premise that Tess is Nasedo for this whole episode, something I had forgotten from my initial viewing. Hurting this hour’s rewatch value is the fact that it’s largely an informational episode, although the info is certainly important: Max and Tess were a couple on their home planet, as were Michael and Isabel. Although the notion of Michael-Isabel is wiggy, it does lead to some good humor as Michael quickly commits to Maria and Isabel to Alex. This episode stretches a bit to bring Kyle back into the fold, as Tess “dates” him in a scheme to get Max and Liz to follow her, but it’s interesting considering the Kyle-Tess relationship of the later seasons.
10. “Blind Date” (14, St. John) – This is a weirdly likable episode even though it doesn’t do anything as well as it should. Two threads — Liz’s radio-station blind date with a nice guy who has the flaw of not being Max, and Max drunkenly stumbling around town with Kyle – seem like they should be funny, but they aren’t really. The whole town’s interest in Liz’s date makes no logical sense, although I suppose it illustrates that the fictional Roswell is much smaller than the real-world one. The one inhibition Max loses is his fear of being found out, so we do get that iconic shower-of-sparks moment that hints at what it might be like if Max let himself be with Liz. Maria singing “In the Air Tonight” with Alex’s band makes me wish the show found more excuses for Delfino to sing.
11. “River Dog” (7, Cheryl Cain) – Before the momentum of “285 South” peters out, there are nice moments. Michael amusingly says “that Maria girl” and later kisses Maria “to calm (her) down,” so they notably have their first kiss before Max and Liz do. Then the show is back in moody mystery mode, with a particularly “X-Files” bent, with the Native American link to the aliens’ history. Although they are themselves the aliens, Max, Michael and Isabel’s investigation is similar to Mulder’s because they know nothing about their past other than vague impressions.
12. “Heat Wave” (9, Katims) – The DVD music directors generally do a good job with the replacement choices, but the loss of Santana and Everlast’s “Put Your Lights On” definitely hurts in the opening scene where Liz sexily eats a doughnut. The idea of heat-wave hookups is kind of flat, but since the episode ends with Liz and Max’s first kiss, it can’t be dismissed. Liz finally telling Alex about the aliens in a jail cell is a prime example of Appleby selling material that should be silly on the page, and Alex gets another good “standing up to authority” moment, going beyond school into civil rights as he chews into the sheriff. Alex’s dream about Isabel comes out of nowhere, and while I like the notion that Isabel likes Alex but is bad at communicating, it’s not followed up.
13. “The Convention” (13, Katims and Emily Whitesell) – This one is a mixed bag. It’s no surprise that Valenti chooses to side with Max and company when he’s forced into the decision, but the guest performance by Tom Bower as laconic-but-shifty alien hunter Hubble is memorable. It’s also chilling to learn that the fourth alien is apparently a mass murderer. Other things about the hour are clunky, including Jonathan Frakes playing “himself” (aiming for self-mockery by being an a**h*** celebrity) and the women’s complaints to Alex about how men are into their obsessions, not their girlfriends. This doesn’t describe Max, and it’s odd that Liz would play along.
14. “The Morning After” (2, Katims) – We see how Michael’s foster home situation is different from Max and Isabel’s loving adoptive home, and therefore why it’s more urgent to Michael to investigate their past. The sheriff’s key, which will find a lock many episodes later, is a prime example of how slow-burning the early part of the season is. This episode introduces us to the code word “Czechoslovakians” and the school’s iconic Eraser Room.
15. “Crazy” (17, St. John) – Season 1 aggressively kicks off its six-episode conclusion with handheld camera work, close-ups, an unhinged turn by Benz as the terrified Topolsky, and Max punching Michael in un-Max-like fashion. Michael is bluntly (if humorously) defined as the uncouth boyfriend in the double-date scene, as his gift of utilitarian shampoo/conditioner contrasts with Max’s gift of bubble bath. I’m a Tess apologist, but I admit she doesn’t make a great initial impression: The first thing she does is steal Isabel’s attention away from Alex.
16. “The Balance” (10, St. John) – Max and Liz’s first date at the pool hall nicely illustrates their new comfort level, and while Max’s idea to slow down isn’t satisfying, Appleby sells Liz’s feelings as always. When Max says “We aren’t meant to be together,” we can hear the heartbreak in Liz’s reply: “Don’t say that.” Overall, though, the hour gets bogged down in mysticism and spiritualism as Michael falls into a sickness in another parallel to Mulder’s exploits on “The X-Files.” The fact that the three humans help in the healing of Michael should be a sign to Max that he should stay with Liz, so their separation going into the Christmas break feels forced.
17. “Blood Brother” (8, Breen Frazier and Barry Pullman) – With the strong “student versus authority figure” plot of Alex standing up to Topolsky, I likely adored this episode back in the day. I noticed some problems on this viewing, though. Although the cat-and-mouse plotting at the hospital is broadly enjoyable, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The teens’ quick acquisition of a label with Max’s name on it for the blood-vial swap is a step too far for me. Still, the point that Liz is losing Alex’s friendship to preserve Max’s secret is well taken; even without a ton of scenes, the Liz-Maria-Alex friendship rings true.
18. “Max to the Max” (20, Graphia) – We’re in the endgame now, as a big mirror-maze showdown ends with another heart-wrenching Liz line: “They have Max.” I have no complaints about Behr as Max, but it is unfortunate that he’s the actor asked to play the most variations (drunken Max in “Blind Date” and Nasedo-in-Max’s form here), because he’s not into rangy turns. This episode establishes Pierce as a conventional Big Bad, giving our heroes a concrete villain to fight, for better or worse.
19. “Missing” (5, Feldman) – Most of the early episodes have a central task in mind; this one is to establish that Michael – in “Close Encounters” mode, drawing geodesic domes all over the place — trusts Liz. The way he finds the trust is weird in retrospect: He steals Liz’s journal and reads it to confirm she isn’t planning on ratting them out to the authorities. But before he returns the journal, Liz goes through a paranoia-driven hell of worrying that she may have put her friends in serious danger, so Michael’s action seems callous.
20. “Monsters” (3, Katims and St. John) – This hour locks in the fact of Maria’s trustworthiness, although the idea that she fears the aliens – seeing them as cheesy monsters in her dream – is a little bit silly. A cute Max-and-Liz moment occurs when they confer about Maria under their science lab desk; their chemistry sparkles even in the simplest scenes. It’s surprising, but also appealing, to see that Max is shy and tongue-tied around Liz when they don’t have a threat to discuss. Steve Hytner (Kenny Banya from “Seinfeld”) delivers the right quirky-but-intense vibe as the UFO Center owner.
21. “The White Room” (21, Katims and St. John) – I rank this much lower than most fans do, but this is the season’s hardest hour to watch (although Pierce’s torture of Max has TV-level tameness, it’s still not fun), and it also has logistical problems. For example, it’s weird how fast Pierce gets the orb from off screen; I guess he had an underling fetch it. It’s ridiculous that the gang still won’t accept Valenti’s help until well into Max’s captivity. Although it’s a clichéd and unpleasant sequence, there probably hasn’t been another alien interrogation scene where we know and sympathize with the alien to this degree, so that’s a neat way to flip the norm.
22. “Sexual Healing” (16, Jan Oxenberg) – Granted, there is a story reason for why Max and Liz spend most of this episode kissing: It gives Max visions, which eventually lead them to a communicator buried in the desert. Nonetheless, it’s boring to watch this much of people snogging. Although I put it in last place, the episode isn’t quite as bad as I remembered. Michael and Maria’s relationship becomes more comfortable and less confrontational, and we get a cute Isabel-Alex moment when she asks him to kiss her for the sake of vision clues. The Evanses and Parkers are very concerned about their kids’ intense dating in this episode; this isn’t a bad thread, except that it’s not reflected in the rest of the season.